How Far Away Is Andre Drummond from Becoming the NBA's Best Center?

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How Far Away Is Andre Drummond from Becoming the NBA's Best Center?
USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond can already see the peak of his position.

Perhaps that's a reflection of his freakish blend of size and athleticism. With a 6'10" frame and 33.5" max vertical, per DraftExpress, there isn't much that flies above his field of vision.

Then again, maybe this is something different. Maybe it's not a simple observation of his physical gifts, but rather the way he has put them to use over his first two NBA seasons.

After dazzling with per-36-minute production as a rookie (13.8 points and 13.2 rebounds), the hulking big man upped the ante his second time around.

With his leash extended to 32.3 minutes a night, he bullied his way to 13.5 points and 13.2 boards as a sophomore, posting monstrous per-game marks of 18.4 and 17.4, respectively, during the month of April.

In the process, he pulled back the curtain on one of the league's worst-kept secrets: His ascension to the top of the center spot is a matter of when—not if.

 

Where Does He Currently Rank?

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Before plotting the path that lies ahead, it's imperative to first take stock of his current standing.

The 21-year-old has a total of 141 games, 91 of them as a starter, under his belt. He's a toddler in NBA years, a standing best captured by the blood-red, raw state of his offense.

His range is almost entirely dependent on his arm length. If he can't reach the basket, he might struggle to put the ball inside it.

However, that isn't necessarily a hindrance to his production. He understands his limitations and plays to his strengths. His shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com, shows a player who knows where he is most effective and rarely strays outside of his comfort zone:

Via NBA.com.

Of his 479 made field goals last season, 427 of them came within three feet of the basket. He only made 14 jump shots the entire campaign (he took 77), relying largely on dunks (183), layups (177) and tip-ins (78) for the bulk of his production.

Some centers have the benefit of a deep bag of offensive tricks at their disposal.

Drummond is not one of them. He's more specialist than skill player at the moment.

"Drummond's offensive style still is primarily lob and dunk, or crash and tip," wrote MLive.com's David Mayo. "He has to add to the package, but that takes time. His post moves require sustained work and big men typically develop more gradually, over longer periods, than perimeter players."

The slow pace of his seasoning seems like it should stifle his stat sheet, but its actual effects have been harder to spot.

Stack his numbers against the top centers in the game, and Drummond's more than hold their own:

The Battle of the NBA's Best Bigs
Player PPG TS% REB% Off Rtg Def Rtg PER
DeMarcus Cousins 22.7 55.5 20.4 107 101 26.1
Andre Drummond 13.5 59.9 22.3 121 104 22.6
Marc Gasol 14.6 52.6 12.7 108 102 18.2
Roy Hibbert 10.8 49.9 12.5 100 98 13.5
Al Horford 18.6 58.8 14.8 109 104 22.0
Dwight Howard 18.3 60.0 20.1 109 101 21.3
Al Jefferson 21.8 53.2 17.5 105 100 22.7
DeAndre Jordan 10.4 63.0 21.6 121 98 18.2
Brook Lopez 20.7 62.9 11.5 121 108 25.4
Joakim Noah 12.6 53.1 18.2 111 96 20.0

Basketball-Reference.com

So, what do those statistics say about Drummond's ranking?

To oversimplify things, the guy is really, really good. He had an average ranking of 4.2 across those six categories, which was topped only by DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan (both 4.0).

Of course, those particular areas don't account for everything these players bring inside the lines.

It doesn't show the skillful, creative passing of Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, or the walls around the basket put up by Brook Lopez and Roy HibbertNBA.com indicates the latter two finished first and second in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim (minimum seven such shots faced per game).

It does, however, highlight how little room is left between Drummond and the current elite centers.

Bleacher Report slotted the Pistons bruiser eighth among all centers in its 2013-14 season rankings. That feels just about right for where he's at right now.

As for where he's going, that might be as low as he sits for a long time.

ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) found that Drummond had the highest projected wins above replacement (11.5) for the 2014-15 campaign. The statistic, courtesy of ESPN, is "an estimate of the number of wins a player adds to a team's bottom line above what would be expected of any easily acquired talent from outside the NBA."

In other words, Drummond could already be the game's most impactful center next season. That's a terrifying thought considering the massive room he has left for growth.

 

How Can He Improve?

USA TODAY Sports

Finding the right comparison for Drummond isn't easy. Guys with this combination of size, speed, strength and explosiveness don't come around often.

That hasn't stopped people from looking for a precedent, though, and the names most often mentioned spotlight his tremendous potential.

Last February, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required) wrote, "Drummond's first 46 games have put him in the conversation with Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal."

Upon first glance, that seems incredibly hyperbolic. Howard has booked eight All-Star trips during his 10 seasons in the league. O'Neal is a Hall of Fame lock who had 12 All-Star selections and won four NBA titles during his storied career.

Even those feeling bullish about Drummond's stock might have a hard time mentioning his name alongside these two. The numbers, however, say they shouldn't.

Drummond's career 22.3 player efficiency rating checks in right between what O'Neal (25.7) and Howard (18.3) put up during their first two seasons in the league. Howard has a narrow edge in scoring (13.9 PPG to 11.1) and rebounding (11.3 RPG to 10.8), but Drummond has the advantage in both when viewed through a per-36-minutes lens (14.6 and 14.2 to Howard's 14.4 and 11.7).

O'Neal's numbers are on a different level (26.4 points and 13.5 boards per game), but he came to the NBA after three seasons spent at Louisiana State University.

Drummond played just a single season of college ball at UConn, while Howard jumped straight from the preps to the pros.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Simply put, Drummond is beginning his career in very impressive fashion. That's what makes charting his future forecast so enticing.

His raw gifts have taken him this far, but he needs to start expanding his repertoire.

He has been developing his post game, hitting 56.2 percent of his hook shots last season after connecting on only two of 11 attempts as a rookie. He doesn't need to become a dominant back-to-the-basket scorer, but his quickness should yield more points out of the post than it has.

And while he's been a disruptive defender (career 2.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game), he has had trouble with individual matchups. 82games.com indicates opposing centers racked up a 19.2 PER against him last season, a number that is far too high given his physical gifts.

Some of these improvements should happen organically, a process ideally hastened by his Team USA experience this offseason.

As Pistons coach-president Stan Van Gundy told Pistons.com's Keith Langlois, repetition will help Drummond learn the finer points of the game:

Instincts, to me, come with experience. You look at a lot of the great point guards in the league and if you track it all the way back and figure out how much basketball they’ve played from being young kids, the things that look instinctual really come from hours and hours and hours of experience. They’ve seen things over and over and become expert at it. It’s the same defensively.

With the national team, Drummond has some expert teachers at his disposal.

He can lean on DeMarcus Cousins to learn the importance of leverage and proper footwork. He can watch how Anthony Davis uses every bit of his length to be a defensive force and aggressive offensive finisher. He can see the benefits of giving nonstop energy from watching Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee.

Add those lessons to what Drummond has already figured out, and you're left with a blossoming big man ready to ascend the ranks of the NBA's center position.

Of course, once he has reached that pinnacle, he'll have to continue improving to hold off those coming for his crown.

 

Protecting the Throne

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The professional sports world is a humbling place. For every current great, there's always a batch of young bloods eager to take their spot.

Considering Drummond just passed his 21st birthday, his focus should be on the road ahead—not his rear-view mirror.

Still, his peripheral vision should pick up on those likeliest to compete with him for the No. 1 spot.

If a bigger, stronger Davis moves to the center position full-time at some point, that could end whatever run Drummond will have enjoyed at the top of the totem pole. After all, Davis is the league's "next in line," according to what reigning MVP Kevin Durant told Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer

He's also only 21 years old.

Assuming Davis logs more time at power forward, Drummond will still face some stiff competition.

If Cousins commits more to the defensive end, he could be a devastating two-way force. The Philadelphia 76ers feature a pair of physical freaks in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, both of whom could be top-flight players by the time the franchise is ready to compete.

More threats could be on the way soon, as the 2015 draft class features a pair of intriguing center prospects in Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl Towns. Those players have some time to reach to the big stage, but Drummond's rapid rise shows how quickly guys can climb the ranks.

Still, this position should be Drummond's to hold in the very near future. He's closer to the top than some may think, and it feels inevitable that he will clear those final steps in the next few seasons.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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